Last Saturday evening, a dry-erase board stood at the entrance of Occupy Atlanta's Woodruff Park encampment. Scrawled beneath the question "Why are YOU here?" were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of responses from protest participants. "Standing up for the suffering people at home and abroad," one person wrote. Other responses were more specific: "End wars for profit" and "Stop corporate influence in politics and government."
The cluttered board is fitting imagery for a nebulous movement. There's been an almost universal desire to define the protesters' aims: journalists want a concise way to describe the Occupiers; liberals want a purpose they can support; and the right wing wants an excuse to call them Nazis. Or Commies. Or whatever.
But there's no easily articulated cause the protestors are rallying around, no single demand that can be met to satisfy them. That's part of the movement's beauty — you can project onto it what you wish.
Just a couple of weeks before Occupy Atlanta began its camp-in, another kind of protest took place, one with a very clear message: Don't execute convicted murderer Troy Davis. The Occupy Atlanta protesters took up that cause by unofficially renaming Woodruff Park in Davis' honor. They've also embraced a number of grievances from their brethren on Wall Street: corporate welfare, the major banks' no-strings bailouts, the war in Afghanistan, the mortgage crisis and federal government's general fucked-upness.
Yes, the Occupy movement's scattershot message can be confusing, but the Tea Party movement has been equally difficult to define, a fact that's hardly hindered its popularity. In fact, the two movements seem born of similar frustrations with the status quo, and are both firmly rooted in the great, underlying fear in our country that the American dream is dead. And, certainly, the American dream is bigger than two or three issues. (Of course, the Occupiers place the blame squarely with the rich while the Tea Partiers mostly blame the poor.)
In a movement with no leaders, no singular cause to rally around and no specific goals to accomplish, there's the chance it could easily lose momentum (even though, at press time, Mayor Kasim Reed had backed off of his call to vacate Woodruff Park on Oct. 17). Eventually, some people will grow tired of sleeping in a tent, especially if they have a home to go to, which most do. Many people — local officials in particular — seem to assume that the occupation will peter out sooner or later.
The Occupy movement has already succeeded in making clear that our current system of democratic engagement is so badly broken that ordinary people feel they must engage in a little civil disobedience in order to actually be heard. If Occupy Atlanta and its sister protests in other cities manage to provoke a genuine national discussion on such issues as economic fairness, income inequality and the responsibilities of the free-market system, then they will have served a valuable purpose. Ultimately, we like what you stand for — whatever it is.